More Than Words
Explosions in the Sky Make Instrumental Magic

I’m pretty proud of my immune system. I identified with George Carlin when he did that routine about swimming in the septic tanks as a child, to toughen up the ol’ antibodies. My immune system, to put it mildly, kicks all kinds of ass, and to prove it, I haven’t been sick enough to miss a day of work in years.

But this week, some kind of mutant viral apocalypse thing wormed its way past my defenses (after two weeks of trying, mind you) and incapacitated me. I’ve been sneezing, coughing, blowing my nose, shivering and all-around aching since Tuesday, and it’s just not going away. I missed what amounted to two days of work this week, and I’m still on the long road to recovery. And I almost bailed out of writing the column this week, too, but I just couldn’t blow off that responsibility, too.

I will, however, try to keep it short. A few appetizers, a light meal, and then we’re done.

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I don’t watch American Idol. To put it bluntly, I think it’s a disease, a horrifying sign of what the music business has become. They’re not looking for musicians on American Idol, they’re looking for malleable pop stars, people with good voices and no artistic ambition, people who will sing the songs presented to them and dance the choreography written for them and cash the checks and shut up. Not to get off on a rant or anything…

But this week, I actually found a reason to seek out Idol footage on YouTube. His name is Chris Sligh, and he’s a pudgy, bespectacled anti-star with a husky voice. He auditioned with Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose,” a song I admit to kind of liking, but that’s not what sent me scouring the web, hoping to find illegally reproduced portions of the show before YouTube’s crack legal team could discover them and purge them.

No, it was this – for his second song of the competition, Sligh chose Mute Math’s “Typical.”

Now, this isn’t the band’s best song, but give the boy credit – he pulled it off. And more importantly, millions of people got to hear a tune from one of the best new bands in many a moon, and from one of the best new albums of 2006. It’s the kind of exposure a band at their level could only dream of, and they didn’t have to pay a red cent for it. (Hell, considering the royalties, they got paid for it.)

And it was probably the only time in American Idol history that an actual, you know, good song was featured. I can only hope that some of the viewers were inspired to check their local record store (or iTunes) for Mute Math’s work. Kudos to Chris Sligh for his great taste, and for standing up for that taste on national television. I don’t watch, but if I did, I’d be rooting for him.

Oh, and one of Sligh’s competitors is named Sundance Head. So that’s kind of cool, too.

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I used to get excited when Tori Amos would announce a new album. Seriously, I would lose sleep wondering what it would sound like, what melodic and emotional delights awaited me.

Now, I just kind of sigh heavily, and occasionally laugh. It’s sad, really.

Tori will return on May 1 with a new record called (I’m not making this up) American Doll Posse. And apparently, she has some vague memory of what it was like when she was actually shocking, when she would write elegant songs about masturbating with pages of the Bible. Those elements appear to be making a comeback on this new album, if the pre-release photo is any indication – it shows Amos in her Sunday best, standing outside a church with a Bible in one hand, the word “shame” written on the other, and a trickle of blood running from her leg.

Honestly, go look. It’s almost a parody of shocking. Sometimes I wonder if, after so many years of tuneless frittering, Amos can go back and reclaim the velvet punch of her first few albums. And then I see something like this, something that’s such an obvious and clumsy attempt to go backwards, and it just makes me hate myself for even wishing it.

But I’ll buy it, of course. And I’ll hope against hope that it’s actually good.

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Quick Oscar predictions: It’s Martin Scorsese’s year. Even Susan Lucci won a damn daytime Emmy, and if Scorsese can’t win with his finest drama since Goodfellas, then he just can’t win. So here’s my breakdown:

Best Actor: Forest Whitaker.
Best Actress: Helen Mirren.
Best Supporting Actor: Mark Wahlberg.
Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Hudson.
Best Director: Martin Scorsese.
Best Original Screenplay: Babel.
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Departed.
Best Picture: The Departed.

Come back next week to see how I did.

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I’ve been told by a few reliable sources that January 2007 was the worst January in the history of the music biz, as far as sales figures are concerned. While this is certainly sad news for my friends on the retail side of things, I’m more baffled by this than anything, and I think it shows the incredible disconnect between the music business and the actual music that’s being produced.

Because I’ll tell you this for free: the first two months of this year have been, musically speaking, amazing.

Here, I’ll throw out a few names for you. The Shins. Bloc Party. Of Montreal. Loney, Dear. The Apples in Stereo. Menomena. The Brothers Martin. All of these acts released great-to-fantastic records in January and February, and if the music business had any idea what to do with great stuff like Bloc Party or Menomena, they’d be million sellers. There’s no reason the Shins, at least, shouldn’t go platinum – it’s a record most people would like, if they’d only get to hear it.

So yeah, 2007’s on a roll, and it’s not likely to stop anytime soon. Case in point: the new one by Explosions in the Sky came out this week, and it’s beautiful stuff. It’s called All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone, but behind that emo-tastic title is some of the most glorious instrumental rock music you’re likely to hear anywhere.

All of a Sudden is 43 minutes without one lyric, which may send some people screaming. But I’d be willing to bet that anyone who gives Explosions in the Sky a chance will hear what I hear in this music – a deep emotional center that gushes to the top like a geyser. This is also the most difficult kind of music for me to write about, since it simply has to be experienced. The old adage about dancing about architecture is absolutely true in this case.

Here’s what I can tell you. Explosions in the Sky is a quintet from Texas, consisting of two guitarists, a bassist, a drummer and a pianist. That sounds like a pretty normal, rock ‘n’ roll lineup, but this group utilizes that lineup to write and record soundtracks for dreams. The songs are lengthy excursions, with endless, aching crescendos that explode into furious, cathartic bliss. The twin guitars of Munaf Rayani and Mark Smith climb atop one another, intertwining and reaching for wondrous new heights, while the rhythm section grounds them as much as they can.

All of a Sudden, the band’s fourth, is very similar to their other three, but better. The sounds are more varied, and they make fuller use of Aaron Hochman’s piano, particularly on the painfully gorgeous “What Do You Go Home To.” The band occasionally lets it fly, the five of them crashing together into a cacophony of thunderous strength – see “Welcome, Ghosts” or the pulsing power of the opener, “The Birth and Death of the Day.” That song ebbs and flows masterfully, using its nearly eight minutes to take you somewhere and back.

But nowhere do Explosions in the Sky accomplish their mission better than on the 13-minute masterpiece “It’s Natural to Be Afraid.” The song starts off almost inaudibly, with backwards noises and a chiming clean guitar, which eventually makes way for delicate piano chords. Less than a minute in, and it’s already more beautiful and otherworldly than I can tell you, and it just gets better. The noisy background crescendos up from behind the fragile melody, overcoming it, before fading back to watch little guitar figures burst from the ground and blossom.

The music explodes and reforms several times over the course of the piece, finally building up to an astonishing eruption around the 11-minute mark, and it disintegrates from there, ending with the same lovely backwards sounds with which it began. It’s an amazing piece of work, possibly the best thing this band has done, and while you could chastise them for repeating their formula from record to record, this song shows just how far they’ve taken the sound, and how sweet the rewards of the journey have been.

All of a Sudden ends with “So Long, Lonesome,” its brevity (3:40) giving it the feeling of a coda. But it truly is the beautiful comedown, all pianos and unearthly guitar noises, and its melody is delightfully sad. There isn’t a wasted second on this album, and it plays like one cohesive piece, with peaks and valleys, each serving the whole.

But beyond that bout of theoretical claptrap, this album will move you like few other instrumental records will. With All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone, Explosions in the Sky have crafted their finest work, but what makes it sing (metaphorically speaking) is the depth of feeling, the powerful emotional undertow that courses through every moment of this music. This is a band in search of beauty beyond words, and in the best moments on this album (meaning, basically, all of it), they find it.

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Next week, I’m not sure. Still working on Zappa, though it doesn’t look likely that I’ll have that done in time. So it all depends on what shows up in the mail between now and then. But March 6 brings the flood, with new ones from the Arcade Fire, Blackfield, Bright Eyes, Lovedrug, Neal Morse and No More Kings. 2007 just keeps ‘em coming…

See you in line Tuesday morning.